I’ve stumbled again into doctrinal debating.
I know, right?
I’ve tried to avoid them, but should I? How can iron sharpen iron without making sparks? Leviticus 19:17 tells us as a sign of love to arguingly argue with one another. Arguments ought to be used to fosters intimacy rather avoided.
Argument summary: I am Messianic, thus believe in Yeshua HaMashiach (Jesus the Christ) but believe following Yeshua also means keeping Torah (the law) because it is a praise to Him, rather than discarding it.
My brotherly and sisterly opponents disagree and present me with a slew of arguments, which—and this will sound like arrogance—I’ve heard before. In fact, I’ve made some of them myself because those are the arguments I was raised to believe.
So how about I tell you a story? The story of how I ‘lost my way’. I’ll show you what I believed, and the questions, the line of reasoning that convinced me to where I am today. Maybe understanding, how I got here, my fellow believers will convert me back, or perhaps, see that I’m not so crazy . . . at least in this regard. =)
My Early Christianity
Born in Alaska in 1981 to Christian or nearly Christian parents . . . [all biographies have to start something like that.]
I’m not sure when our family became Christian, but Dad talks like the years before I remember were something of a transition. My mother was born Catholic, and my Dad, I think, was Presbyterian or Episcopalian. Neither heritage seemed much defined/changed by their faith. In fact, I grew up asking grandparents (especially on Dad’s side) whether they were saved, and not believing that they were.
But I grew up identifying our home as Christian. Dad explained many of the things we did on the basis of scripture. We went to church. Mom read scripture after each meal. Some Sundays when we stayed home, Dad would lead us in worship with hymn books that were kept at home. We consistently went to church. However—and my loving brothers and sisters will point to this as “Aha, that’s where Jesse started becoming a heretic”—my family didn’t stay in any church for too long.
My earliest church memories were of a home church with the Frasies family, and I don’t remember much other than that one of the boys there seemed bullyish to me (but that’s probably the unfair memory of someone around six or seven). And one day I came in on a prayer portion and shouted, “My Mom made cinnamon rolls, and yours didn’t.” I cringe when I imagine how that must have mortified my Mom. Ha ha. Oh, yeah. And while looking at a flashlight on a table, I was pushed off and broke my leg.
Later, we went to Monroe Park Gospel Chapel in Spokane. I have many memories there. They had a good library for kids. I drew pictures in the pews and sat with the adults during sermons. I stole cookies out of the fridge (at the time, I didn’t think of it as stealing). As an eight year old, I wrestled with a nine year old and ‘won’. I would also wave as I ran along cars being driven away . . . at least one time I ran into a sign.
I also remember the trauma of being asked to sit on some teenager’s lap. Her name was Robin and she was pretty, so of course no little boy wants to sit on a pretty girl’s lap for a play, and pretend to be a little boy . . . Very traumatic. But the show went on, and I did my duty to sit in the pretty girl’s lap.
One day, we stopped going. I didn’t know why, or even really process that this was unusual. Being committed or grounded in a specific church hadn’t been instilled in me. Later, I came to understand that we had left because the Gospel Chapel wasn’t motivated to spread the gospel.
About the same time, my Dad started feeling called to help spread creation science. He got involved with ICR (Institute for Creation Research) and Answer in Genesis, helping with events and conferences. He even started a local organization called Creation Outreach. Dad taught in the home that the Word of God was paramount and that we as a family lived according to what the Bible said, but the Bible would be no good if it didn’t match up with real life evidence. Nowadays, he would summarize it using a jury trial analogy. A person shouldn’t be convicted on testimony alone. Testimony must be matched to physical evidence.
So we as a family began to serve together in this endeavor as Dad found speaking opportunities at various churches and conferences. It was a humble ministry, but I had some secret pride about what Dad was doing. One day a church elder challenged him during his presentation. He was not uncivil, and the man had a point because Dad had moved from creation evidence to prophetic topics—but young boys aren’t known for that kind of nuanced distinction. I instantly disliked this other guy.
The ministry kind of faded away, not sure quite why. Dad still ministers through a blog (from before the time it was called a blog). And I still respect his efforts on the creation front.
Other things in those middle years include going to a Bible camp up in Canada, where I learned to play poker and Stretch (a game where you throw knives near each other’s feet, gradually placing a foot where the knife sticks until you’re doing unbearable splits and fall over . . . or until someone actually gets hit with a knife and the counselors say enough. The poker had to stop too.) But I loved those times at camp, singing around the campfire. Playing games. Doing sword drills and memorization, and chapel every night which always had the gospel in it.
The years did turn darkish, though. I became aware of the feeling of loss as we hopped churches, making friends only to move on. There always seemed to be something doctrinally wrong with the churches. From my perspective, they all taught basically the same things. The gospel of grace, salvation by faith, praying to receive Jesus, baptism, eternal security, ‘penal substitution’ [a brother recently introduced me to the term], the trinity, all those things. We never went to a Catholic church or a JW or a Mormon or a Jonesboro Baptist. They all seemed to be evangelical/protestant/reformed/regular church—and the first time I heard about Calvinism, it was me being told that we were Calvinists, by my Dad. So that was my normal, those were the main doctrines that I grew up with, and never had reason to question.
The reasons we left—as I realized later—usually had to do with some, more private interpretation of a more . . . peripheral doctrine? Some I still see as important. Like do they believe in a literal creation account? I take a more nuanced approach to that literality, but I firmly believe it’s a mistake to simply allegorize it. Other doctrines—at least the way they were taught in our home—I have rejected. Like whether God is really a male and only a male because He is always called He.
I mention that particular discard because it was at the basis of why we left more than one church. Also, I think it was the cause or the symptom of growing strife in the home between my parents. Another part of that equation involved alcohol. These mixed and worsened as I approached thirteen.
Toward the end, I would not have seemed unchristian. And I will firmly say that I had sincere belief. I had asked Jesus into my heart. I believed He died and rose again for my sins. But I will say, I was on the way out the door. I just didn’t realize it. Looking back there were environmental reasons. Fighting in the home and alcohol had badly damaged the way I felt about our family. Making matters worse, I had been exposed to pornography. Nothing like what we have today in terms of availability or explicity. I don’t want to give the wrong impression about what my parents knowingly allowed in the home, but that spirit (for lack of a better term) was having an impact. I’m not trying to gross anyone out, least of all my parents, but . . . the truth of redemption is that even your sins can be turned around. Grace is only great, if sin is also great. So if I say some things that are shameful toward my family, I hope they make that point.
Beginning of a New Beginning
And so the stage was set for my arrival Medical Lake Community Church, another non-denominational congregation that was probably Calvinist, taught salvation by grace through faith, through the shed blood of Jesus. I coasted in, no intentionality of my own, not hostile but just coasting, drifting.
The church was normal enough, until the youth pastor changed. I didn’t really want to go to his class. I had developed low self-esteem, manifesting in insecurity, so I preferred the company of people younger than myself. But, praise God, I was sent to the high school class that became Jack’s. Some people whom I dearly love will say this is where it all went wrong for my beliefs, I will say it was an act of God. Remember, my faith was shutting down. Could God have got me back another way? Of course, but this is the way He chose.
Jack opened up the scriptures. I’d never been around an instructor that actually went from verse to verse, and interacted with real questions. Sure, I’d done ‘workbooks’ and other mass produced class materials where you’d fill in the blank, or make a note about what something meant. But with Jack you had blanks and no form questions. He was the first teacher I’d ever had who made a point by reading and dissecting a passage instead of merely giving a verse to memorize along with it’s one and only meaning. Maybe everyone else’s youth group Sunday School classes were different, but I’d never been in one before, and I didn’t see one after.
The difference really seems to have centered on questions. Here’s what the passage says, but what does that mean? Who’s Paul talking to? Jesus said this, but how does that work with what He said earlier? Answers to these were dragged out of us as kept fingers in half a dozen books at a time. We saw the stepping stones that connected one verse to another, the logic and cohesion binding one scriptural thought to another. I can’t say it all sunk in, none of us were used to actively interpreting as opposed to simply recalling what we’d been taught. Jack had to rephrase most questions in ten different ways to get our minds to finally turn over on their own, but he cranked away to get us active in the study instead of merely absorbing.
Up until then, I’d always been told what to believe, with a verse or two for reference, but no one had linked the verses together into a cohesive train of thought. We were learning to study, not just recall. The seed of really studying was planted for the first time. We were learning to study for ourselves, instead of just trusting a pastor or a commentator to decode the hidden message. The Bereans were held up by Paul because they rigorously studied the scriptures to see if Paul told the truth, that was the model for our class, too.
And that went right along with the thesis of Jack’s time at MLCC. I met him in the book of Matthew, and he kept drawing out passages like the parable of the talents or the ten virgins, pointing out how what we did affected the outcome. I kept seeing passages that I had always summarized in my mind as being calls to believe, and seeing, “Wait. These are already to believers, they are telling us to make belief into action.” Belief and salvation were not the end of the race; they were the beginning. Choices mattered, lesser and greater reward stood before every believer. Sin or righteousness . . . still mattered for the disciple of Jesus. It wasn’t just what He did for us, there was a response that was expected. To summarize what I learned: Matthew 12:36 “That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.”
To be clear, Jack never taught that this was about salvation, but rather obedience and reward vs. losing reward. He would often say, you’ll go to heaven, but you might be scrubbing toilets. Which was always funny because he was a custodian who scrubbed toilets. He could use the parable of the talents, the parable of the sower, Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:15, Ephesians 2:10, 1 Timothy, or many others to make the point.
Grace wasn’t central conversation in our home, so perhaps that’s why I wasn’t allergic to Jack’s doctrine. Not that it was absent, but it wasn’t as central, as perhaps faith and truth. But I heard about grace there, and in every church and Bible camp I recall. But these provided no obstacle in my mind between salvation by grace and a call to obedience. Why talk about the ten commandments or obeying parents if obedience no longer mattered? If right and wrong were worth Jesus’ death on the cross, why weren’t we more careful to obey? Why wouldn’t God be pleased with me for actually doing good?
It wasn’t just that I had no reason to object to this new doctrine, there was also a part that wanted it to be true. I’d heard people proudly say, there’s nothing we can do to add to the work of Christ. That grace was unmerited favor. That we can’t earn our way to heaven. That our sins are forgiven on grace alone. But hearing obedience to God had consequences, stirred my soul. And looking back, why should that be reaction surprise?
God made Adam and Eve to rule and reign, to subdue the earth, to keep (meaning guard) the garden. Then the Bible is full of saints doing tremendous good deeds, heroic deeds, yes of faith, but deeds! Even in our modern time, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresea, Billy Graham, or your neighbor down the street, or a martyr in China—we all know that we were made to do good and great things. Having someone tell me that it mattered whether I used my talent or buried it in the sand, if I bore fruit or if I didn’t—that awakened something inside. I didn’t become instantly perfect, but I’ll tell you this, porn and my autopilot faith were taken out back and shot. There was power in the doctrine of obedience.
I can’t overemphasize what someone essentially saying, “Repent! For the Kingdom is at hand!” did for me. You can tell me all you want to about grace, but the message of grace apart from obedience had left my faith to die; the call to repent and obey, brought me back. That’s not displacing grace, rather it’s realizing grace isn’t given so you can stay in sin, it’s for getting you out of sin. The goodness of God lead’s men to repentance.
To be continued . . .